He chooses his defeats, she makes his victories. Thirteen years later, the stories have changed.

Win the Battle, Lose the War

Roy can't do this anymore.

In his life he's practiced offensive disappointment: he's chosen his defeats in the hopes that victories will align themselves to make up for the deficit. It doesn't always work out. But he's done it so often it's become a habit, and now, with the urge skimming the underside of his skin, he can't quite turn it down. He's on his way out, anyway; Hollywood makes and breaks you, they say, kisses and kills you. There isn't much call for a broken stuntman.

And thirty-six, well, thirty-six is just a year, an age, a number. Till you tell it to people and they get leery-eyed and start to bluster. He looks younger, maybe, which is why he can fool them up to a point. But he's long since given up on lying, and thirty-six is too old to take falls without worry, especially when you've been doing so for thirteen years.

So he takes the plunge. He chooses his defeat. He quits before they can fire him, and retreats into a hotel room that's all paid up for the week. He sits on the bed and only moves to scratch where it itches, feels his beard come slowly spooling out of his skin. His hair is cut trim, to match the hero he was meant to be stunting for. His face is gently haggard for thirty-six, the small scar under his right eye the oldest but by no means the only mar.

He'll have to find something else to do, he knows, but in the meantime— in the meantime, a little rest, a little stillness. He looks down at his feet, twitches his toes to reassure himself he's still got mobility.

Eventually he sleeps.

When he wakes up fully, it's a few days later and the once-weekly maid is knocking on the door. He has one more day before he has to vacate or pay up, and he's still undecided as to which he'll do. Things have not aligned themselves while he was dreaming. His mouth is dry and he suddenly, irrationally, craves oranges.

The knock comes again.

His mouth creaks when he opens it and he can practically feel the whisper of dust falling from his lips.

"Yeah."

"I'm here to clean." A female voice, clearly accented but understandable nonetheless.

Roy glances around himself and grunts slightly. So he's not the neatest guy. That's what maids are for.

"Can't you wait till after I leave?" Though he's still unsure whether he's going to.

"No I can't wait till after you leave, this is my job. I have to clean today because tomorrow I have to clean somewhere else, and the day after that somewhere else—"

"Alright, alright." He stands up, moves towards the door.

"— and I won't be back here till next week and someone else will be here, so I have to clean now or it won't get done."

"Okay! I get it." He pulls it open; he never bothers to lock doors or windows. The only thing of value that's ever in his rooms is himself, and he's debatable. He barely spares the girl a glance— she's young, small, dark-haired, and her voice matches her exactly— backs up, away, and sinks into a chair in the corner. The room is tiny and her voice fills it as she bustles busily around, stripping the bed with concise movements born of long practice.

"It wouldn't be very nice, to leave a mess for the next person. I'm in a hurry, you understand, I have this whole row to do on my own."

Her incessant chatter brushes the edges of his mind but doesn't penetrate deep enough for recall. He gives her a frowning glance of concentration, but she's turned away from him and all he can grasp is the fall of her hair over her back, over her shoulders as she bends over the bed.

"Well, I'm sorry," he tells her. "You woke me up is all."

"When I'm done with this," she says, "with all the rooms, I am going to the movies."

This startles a laugh out of him, wry and sideways. "That a fact? Well, it's nice to have a plan."

"And what I'm going to do someday," she says, because he's there and listening, and in her excitement she stands and turns towards him and he sees that her eyes are a soft grey-blue a split second before she says, "Roy!" and jumps on him.

Her weight jolts him, slight as she is, and since she starts to slide off his lap she grabs onto his shoulders and his arm is around her waist before he even realizes it. She grins into his face, runs the tip of one finger around his ear.

He says, bewildered, "What?"

"You don't recognize me?"

"Recognize you—" But he does, of course, because this is the much older version, the grown version, of a girl he once knew, thirteen years before, and a girl he still knew, every once in a while, sidling with a huge grin through his better dreams. "Alexandria?"

"Alexandria the Great," she says, and her smile is the same as it was all those years ago. She puts a hand on either side of his face and holds him still, looking him over carefully with a proprietorial air, as though checking to see how he's been using himself. Assessing the damage, the miles. "You're still here." It's a secret to herself, a triumph and a pleasure; his life means more to her now than it ever did to him. "And you can—" She bounds off his lap. "Stand up. Up."

So he does, holds his arms out at his sides and does a slow twirl for her benefit, and for her amusement, a little soft-shoe shuffle. She laughs, claps, throws her arms around him.

"I've been wondering about you," he murmurs into her hair. "I knew you must have grown up, some, but I guess I didn't realize how long it had been."

"A long time," she says helpfully, and lets him go. She beams up at him. "You're taller than I remember."

"That's because you were five," he says, and slides his hands into his pockets. "And because you only ever saw me lying down."

"And sitting. Once."

"And sitting," he agrees. He looks her over, with not quite the same proprietorial air but something similar. Her advancement owes nothing to him, while his life owes everything to her. She's benefitted from years. Her English is no longer broken, but rolls out like a carpet from her lips, smooth. The accent is still there, but more as a side course, less of a main dish. "Thirteen years, that makes you— eighteen."

"Nineteen. I just turned."

"Oh yeah?"

"I got a dog. To keep burglars away."

"Oh yeah?" he says again, and subsides back into the chair, but she takes his hand and tugs till he stands up again, then maneuvers him around so she can sit, with him standing, facing her.

"You've been here for over a month, and I didn't realize. I wish I had known earlier."

"I wish you had too," he says. "I would have liked to have a friend. How long have you been working here?"

She considers, and gives a shrug.

"A few years. I worked in the groves till I was fifteen, then they sent me back into the city."

"They sent you?"

She hesitates, but she doesn't like lying. "I asked. The doctor, all those years ago, you remember the doctor?"

"I remember him."

"He said if I worked in the groves after my arm healed I would stay there my whole life, and, well, and I wanted to prove him wrong. So I asked to be sent into the city to find a job here, and so I came. This is nice," she assures him, anxiously. "I get the evenings off. I go to the movies." She dips her head, in some embarrassment. "I watched for you."

He smiles.

"How've you been?" he asks softly. In answer she lifts her arm, to the position it held for long months in the hospital, supported and stiff in a cast. She won't say anything and after a long moment he nods. "Well. I'm sorry."

She lowers her arm, shakes herself out of it. "Are you in a new movie? Will you take me to see you?"

He grimaces. "I'm not actually working in the movies anymore, Alexandria."

Her eyes widen. "You lost your job, Roy?"

"I didn't lose it. I quit it. Before I lost it."

"If you don't have your job anymore, you lost it."

"I'm getting too old," he defends himself. "I can't do it anymore. The business has broken younger men than me. I've been lucky too many times, and I don't want to die for some stupid picture."

She's not really listening. "You're always falling, and you never land."

He puts his hands over his face, feels the prickle of the short hairs on his chin. "That's me."

"What are you going to do now? If you're not falling anymore. And you can walk."

"Don't know. Clean hotel rooms maybe."

This reminds her of her duties, and she stands up decisively. "Help me make the bed. It will be good practice."

He joins her, the bed already stripped, and they shake the fresh linens out and tug them around into shape, pat them down and smooth them. His skin is paler than hers. He faces her over the bed and goes very still as he watches her concentrate on her job, what she does and what she's paid for, watches the young girl he knew warring for the right to get older, to grow up, to move on.

He wants very much to say, "Take me with you." But he's afraid that will be her cue to leave, so he says nothing, keeps a look of placid contentment on his face. Together they smooth the coverlet, and she tucks it in, makes crisp neat corners like hospital beds. She looks at him for a moment, then lies down and holds still.

"Is this what you felt like?" she whispers.

It can't be anywhere near as bad but she doesn't need to know that so he says, "Yes." He leans his weight on the bed, knees first, allows a crooked smile. "Tell me a story."

She closes her eyes as she grins. "Once upon a time, the end. I'm no good at stories. You tell me one."

"Okay." He breathes in deep and it comes out a sigh. "Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess, and she— had to clean motel rooms." Alexandria grins and giggles again, bats her eyelashes at him till he laughs as well. He subsides down onto the bed next to her, lying on his side so he can watch her. "And one day she went to clean the room of a former bandit, an ex-bandit, who'd stolen a whole bunch of jewels before he retired and hidden them in the motel room. She found them under the bed, and the first thing she thought was that she had to return them to their owners. But then the ex-bandit, the retired bandit, came back in the room. Why do that? he said. They're already gone. They've already been lost, the people will get over it. And little by little he convinced her—"

"To keep the jewels?"

He watched her for long enough that he nearly forgot to answer; she had to nudge him. "Yeah," he said softly. "To keep the jewels."

"So she stole."

"No. He stole."

"But she was happy about it."

"She was very happy. They lived happily ever after with those jewels. Whenever it got dark, the moonlight would glint off them and so they always had enough light to see each other. And as long as they could see each other, they were happy."

She thinks this over, and then smiles and nods. "That's okay."

"Well, thank you very much, Miss Alexandria."

She starts, abruptly, and sits up. "I forgot."

"Forgot, forgot what?"

"If I'm late, Tony gets angry. I need to finish, and go home."

She's standing up, and he watches her, concerned, taken aback. "Who's Tony?"

"Husband," she says shortly. It sucks the breath from him and he has to stare at her, try to take her in in yet another light. She's gone from child to woman to matron in the space of a few minutes, and like a father he wishes she had stayed at the first, before her evolutions. But he can't bring himself to regret her standing before him, now, like this. So he stands up, too, to say goodbye properly.

"You can come back, if you want," he says. "I mean, not just to clean the room. As my friend."

"You'll be here?" she questions. It's a valid point: where, exactly, will he be? The job is over, he's chosen his defeat. But she's opened the door, and walked in, and he thinks she's also ensured his victory, even at this late date. Certainly right now he feels that he can do anything, even though in reality he's capable of next to nothing.

"Knock first," is what he says, the vivid memory in his mind of being woken up, from nightly sleep or from catnapping during the day, by a girl in a cast bouncing on his stomach. It no longer applies, but he likes the thought, and grins to himself.

She's going to leave; the door is open. She smiles up at him, so familiar yet gone so long it makes his heart ache.

"I'd kiss you," she says, her fingers finding his mouth, stroking a little, "except—" They slide down, little fingers, little hand, tug lightly on his week-old beard. "Scratchy."

"Right." He closes his eyes and in the silence she guides him down till she can reach, kisses him high up on the forehead, her mouth in his hair. It sparks a memory in him and he makes careful allusion to a long-ago day which she has tried to forget and he can't go one hour without remembering.

"Remember when I fell asleep," he says, "and you tried to wake me up. I was drowning in it but I still felt. It was while you were my daughter and your hat covered your eyes. Remember?"

She doesn't like lying. She regards him solemnly.

"No," she says.

"That's okay," he tells her.

"Goodbye, Roy," she says.


Roy can do this. Now.

He regards his haggard sleep-fuzzed face in the mirror under the flickering dim light of the communal bathroom. He hasn't locked the door and anyone could walk in at any time. He raises the blade, the straight razor, the cutting edge, the only sharp thing in a world of soft, blurred edges.

He thinks of a pirate, living and dying by the sword. He sighs.

With careful strokes he shaves the beard from his face, emerges once more as a man he thinks he knows pretty well by now, but isn't positive. At this late date, though, how much more could there possibly be to learn?

He shaves the path her lips once took, to wake him from the deepest sleep he's ever known. She failed that time, but won in the end. So when she returns, he'll be her bandit once more, her storyteller, and her story. So when she comes back, she'll remember.